The world of the modern professional footballer is a contradictory affair. The presumed glory and fame of sporting success is mixed with the negative pressures and anxiety of young lives. Ross Raisin’s ‘A Natural’ addresses these contradictions with a novel about a young gay footballer whose success is threatened by his own sexuality.
England youth international Tom Pearman has been released by a Premier League club in the north and finds himself playing for a lowly League Two team in a remote southern town.
Isolated from his family and friends he is struggling to come to terms with the style of football demanded of him by an out-of-touch and tyrannical manager.
Not only is Tom an outsider but he also believes that there is ‘something deeply wrong with him’. Which is perhaps not surprising, given that no player in England’s top four divisions has come out about their homosexuality. It is telling that if a player did ‘come-out’ it would still jeopardise their career.
Tom inevitably hides secrets from his teammates. He has to be a split personality, one part footballer, and one part human being. He develops a relationship with the head groundsman but this only heightens the pressure and the constant fear of exposure.
The downward trajectory of Town’s captain Chris Easter is in contrast to Tom’s football fortunes, but both players suffer long periods of despair and self-loathing. This is the high-pressure environment that football families have to operate in.
Easter’s wife Leah has almost forgotten the dreams she once held for her own life. She has a transient lifestyle, moving as her partner is transferred from club to club, she is now lost and disillusioned with where life has taken her.
Raisin provides an authentic portrayal of life in the lower divisions both on and off the pitch.
The fine details are present in the pre-match nerves, the neatly laid out kit and the smell of Deep Heat in the changing rooms, but it is the edginess about the unchecked laddishness, the fake camaraderie and the close scrutiny from supporters on social media that Raisin wants us to feel.
On the down side the novel is a little slow paced in the opening half and some of the characters are relatively undeveloped and unengaging.
But the central plot retains the reader’s interest and we want to know what happens to Tom both in his personal and professional life.
It is a brutish environment where young men are taken away from their families, isolating them from real life before rudely returning them at some point in the future.
Despite what the football authorities may have told us about professional football it is still riddled with prejudice, racism and sexist behaviours: bullying; physical abuse and sexual harassment is still rife.
During the team’s Christmas party two young players are made to perform a sex act on a prostitute. On another occasion a terrified young player is held down and has his penis boot polished by a teammate. This young player subsequently gives up football completely because of the bullying.
This is a rare novel about the challenges of being a gay professional footballer and hopefully it will go some way to help changing perceptions in a sport that has still got a very long way to go.
A Natural by Ross Raisin is published by Jonathan Cape.
This review was published in the April/May 2017 edition of Late Tackle magazine.